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N.S. housing advocates want PC government to put budget surplus back into housing

On the same day Halifax council examined the idea of setting up more tent sites on the Halifax Commons to support the growing homeless population, the Nova Scotia PC government reported nearly $116 million in surplus funds they didn’t account for in the previous budget forecast.

Now agencies that support and work with the homeless are calling on the provincial PC government to direct some of that surplus money toward the housing crisis.

Greg Martell works as a drop-in host at the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in downtown Halifax. He’s seen an increase in people coming into the centre to access services, and he says many are homeless and having to resort to living in tents.

“I didn't know we were as overwhelmed as we currently are,” said Martell. “We got to give people affordable housing in order to help them get back to work, not a tent.”

It seems everyone agrees that tents are a Band-Aid solution to the homelessness situation.

Still the number of homeless living rough in Halifax is steadily growing and, according to HRM’s latest staff report on housing, Halifax needs upwards of 20 new encampment sites to meet the need.

That’s not sustainable and not a long-term solution, says Souls Harbour Mission CEO Michelle Porter.

“The tent site is not a place of hope, it’s a place of bleakness where there are men and women who cannot find a decent roof over their head, and their safety doesn’t seem to be the priority,” said Porter.

On Tuesday, while Halifax city council was discussing the homeless strategy, the province's PC government announced a nearly $116 million surplus in last year's budget.

Those who work with the homeless, like Dalhousie professor of social work Jeff Karabanow, say they want to see some of that surplus directed to the homeless situation, which Karabanow calls a crisis.

“Some of that funding should definitely move towards helping this housing crisis,” said Karabanow. “We are closer to a disaster around the homelessness sector, and it’s a population that I think, if you can mobilize thoughtfully and swiftly, we can really be making great strides.”

Halifax’s homelessness budget for this year was set at $1.6 million, but, according to the staff report, it’s expected the city will spend more than that.

According to the report, it costs roughly $30,000 per year to service an encampment site, but advocates say more long-term and dignified living arrangements are needed.

“We need more sustainable solutions, like tiny homes and prefabricated shelters spaces,” said Karabanow. “There are ways that we could be getting folks into more sustainable, healthier spaces.”

Porter says the situation is urgent and wants to see all levels of government collaborating together, instead of all the fingering pointing.

“We need to come together and sort it out. We did it for COVID, we proved we could work together during the pandemic, and I think this is a pandemic of homelessness,” said Porter.

Beginning Jan. 1, the provincial rent cap will allow property managers to increase rent by five per cent, and that is another reason housing advocates are concerned the number of homeless could climb even greater.

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